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Can Turkeys Fly?

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Eastern wild turkeys. CREDIT: Maslowski/National Wild Turkey Federation

Turkeys have long been a mainstay of Thanksgiving dinner tables everywhere, but most people imagine these gobblers pecking on the ground, and never picture these funny-looking fowl taking flight.

But is that because turkeys can't fly? Or do people just not think of them that way?

While the domesticated turkey you cook for Thanksgiving, bred for prodigious plumpness, has never been airborne, wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) can fly.  These birds, which have a wingspan of about 4.1 to 4.8 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters), according to National Geographic (opens in new tab), typically fly short long distances, but can't fly at great altitude. The wild birds have to fly because they often roost in tall trees at night.

It's not clear exactly where the myth turkeys can't fly originated. However, these  birds tend to spend most of their time on the ground. These iconic North American fowl tend to forage on the ground for berries, corns, seeds leaves and grains, with an occasional insect thrown in, according to BirdWeb. Because they are so often spied in flocks, pecking for food in open fields, people may have wrongly concluded that they are completely Earthbound. 

Another reason people may not imagine turkeys flying: They are not migratory birds, according to BirdWeb, meaning they aren't traversing long distances in large groups. And because turkeys sport small heads atop rather large bodies, that may also give the impression the turkeys are aerodynamically ill-suited to flying.

The wild turkey's low-flying tendencies can spell trouble for the birds, because it makes them easy to catch. Hunting by early Americans brought the wild turkey population to a low of just 30,000 birds back in the 1930s, according to Regulatory Review. (opens in new tab) Conservation efforts since then, including the release of pen-raised birds back to the wild, has restored the North American population to about 7 million in more recent years, Regulatory Review reported.

As for the more familiar Thanksgiving turkey: It is so grossly fattened up in the farm that it has about as much chance of flying as you do after your pumpkin pie.

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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium (opens in new tab), covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.